Make Editing Fetch

I hope everyone had a good Father’s Day. It can be a tough day for a lot of people, so I hope it was spent with people you love and who support your emotional health.

One of the things my dad taught me how to do is to critique creative things in a manner that is helpful but respectful. I’ve been editing since I was 8 or 9 years old, and the things I was editing were his. I would go through, see which words were used too often, find typos, ask questions about why someone said something, and he’d explain it to me. Often, I was just too young to get a nuance, but he would listen very seriously and take my feedback into account, and it completely altered how I interact with stories, for the better.

Well, mostly for the better. It also means I’m always in editing mode, and that seems to be a less popular part of publishing these days. Right now it seems that the two big trends are 700+ page epics and writing closer to the “pantser” style than the “planner” style. It would be one thing if each page in these books felt like a compelling, necessary inclusion into the narrative, and I think there are some who come very close to that being true. But a lot of the time it feels like filler, and if you’re fluffing up something that’s already full novel-sized, it tends to bog down rather than augment.

I’m not sure exactly when this trend started. If you look back 40 years, there just weren’t that many books that were this bloated. Lord of the Rings was one of the fluffiest, longest epics any of us had seen and the full trilogy is less than 1200 pages. Certainly some of this is because word processors made it easier to type and not look back, as proofreading software gets more and more sophisticated. But I’m not sure that explains Robert Jordan. I propose a revolution that involves many red pens.

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Thanks, Gretchen, I knew we could make it happen!

Here are five editing suggestions I’ve gotten from the men in my family over the years.

Read it out loud

Read it out loud to yourself. This will help catch a lot of grammar and spelling issues, but also make it clear when a sentence is too convoluted or contains words that trip the reader mid-stride. Bonus, read it out loud in print. You’d be amazed how many small changes I make to the “final proof” before publishing.

Have five other people read it first

Ideally this number would be closer to ten, but that’s hard to do. Five other sets of eyes will help catch things your mind now slides over, or that people with different experiences read differently from your intentions. Plot holes, character weaknesses, moments where the pacing falters…all of this becomes much more apparent when people who are not you get a look at the thing. Honestly, even knowing other people will be looking at it is often enough to get you to see more faults you’d like to polish.

If you are a beta reader, the author honestly wants to know–did all the characters feel three dimensional? Did anything feel forced? Did the plot make sense? Did anything seem too convenient? Was the pace too fast or slow? As long as it comes from a place of affection and has good concrete ways to progress (not just a “yikes, this really needs work”) then be frank and give examples.

Ask if every sentence is necessary

Every read through, try to find a sentence or a paragraph that can be removed, condensed, or streamlined. What does this sentence add? What amount of tension or emotional buy-in do I get with or without this sentence? Can I combine sentence to make a more poignant one? I recently read a book that had padded all of the tension out. You could tell there was a story that wanted to be a thriller, but instead it was more a coming of age tale with some magic thrown in. Both are good, but plotting a thriller as a cozy mystery will cause issues more times than not. What is necessary for us to know? What are the peaks and valleys of action? Can I move things around to keep the peaks soaring?

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Think of real people

Not Hollywood. Not that one cool video game you played. Not your dream lover. Someone real. Would they say this? Is this how a conversation flows? Do knees move that way? Picture and then describe real people. People who don’t excuse their tardiness on menstruation or get lost in the eyes of someone while a body bleeds out beneath their feet or who aren’t experts in every known discipline at eighteen. Do real people things whenever possible.

Put the damn thing away

Eventually it will feel like this book has consumed you and none of the words are good, but you don’t care because whatever, man, at least it’s done.

Put it down. Work on something else for a couple of days–a week or a month if you can swing it. Let the frustration of it fall away and then read it again. What do you see now with fresh eyes? What can be moved or removed? Do you still feel like the characters are their best authentic selves? Any new plot holes to deal with?

Hope this helps. I’d really like for there to be a fad of zippy, meticulously plotted books with language that sings if anyone could help to arrange that. Do you think Billy Porter is free? That man can make anything cool. Or how about Keanu? Everyone loves him. Do either of them edit, do you think?


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